On Jan. 3, 2011, Tony Gonchar didn’t simply step into his new job as chief executive officer of ASTA. He hit the ground running.
Gonchar was well-suited to take the reigns of ASTA thanks, in part, to his previous post as executive vice president of sales and marketing at Virtuoso, where he gained credibility among the travel agent and supplier communities.
Since joining ASTA, Gonchar has kept a rigorous schedule, from evaluating the organization and pinpointing ways to improve it, to meeting with travel industry members and legislative leaders.
“For the first three months at ASTA, as with any company that needs turning around, I wanted to assess the infrastructure before making changes,” said Gonchar.
Among his immediate goals was setting up an agenda of transparency and accessibility to the CEO.
In more recent months, Gonchar has been traveling extensively, speaking at road shows and exchanging ideas with agents. At press time, he was heading to his 11th ASTA chapter meeting of 2011.
What travel agents are saying
As Gonchar talks with agents, they tell him 2011 has been a good year compared to 2010.
“Agents say there’s a pent-up demand on the part of consumers, despite the economy,” he said. “Clients are saying ‘enough’s enough’ and they’re ready to travel. So we’ve seen a nice healthy recovery this year.”
However, ASTA members tell Gonchar they are still concerned that increasingly, people are booking online.
“We need to help our members create differentiation,” said Gonchar. “I advise agents to avoid being a general practitioner and, instead, find a specialty or niche that they can own exclusively — honeymoons, for instance, or a particular destination.”
Gonchar is aware of the aging workforce among travel agents. For many, embracing technology is a challenge and using social media in their business may seem out of the question.
“ASTA needs to help our agent members maximize their strengths as well as maximize the relationships they have with existing customers,” he said.
Gonchar summarized three areas where he’s targeting improvements at ASTA.
The first, proactive representation, includes everything from the work that ASTA does on Capitol Hill to managing its global image.
“We need to be ahead of the curve, taking a coordinated approach to ensuring that agents are represented,” he said.
Toward that goal, Gonchar recently discussed issues with U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), who sits on influential transportation committees.
Consumers need to be made aware of the value that ASTA provides to them, Gonchar added.
“ASTA hasn’t been expressing that value very well,” he said. “We want to make sure that we deliver a quality message to the traveling public.”
Equally important for Gonchar is the area of relevant communication, which ranges from providing ASTA members with online tools and information, to rethinking the shows and events that it hosts.
To that end, ASTA is reinvigorating its domestic trade show, called TheTradeshow. Instead of returning to its alternating trio of host cities — Las Vegas, Ft. Lauderdale and Orlando — it’s moving to Los Angeles in 2012. In the future, it will continue to take the show to new destinations including, at some point, a city near the Canadian border — perhaps Seattle, Vancouver, Chicago, Montreal or Toronto.
“While our previous host cities have been tremendous partners, ASTA needs to set itself apart by moving to locations where fewer travel industry meetings take place,” said Gonchar. “I want other cities to open their doors to us and show agents all that they have to offer them.”
Similarly, ASTA’s annual International Destination Expo (IDE) takes place in exciting new locales each year, including Lima, Peru, in 2012.
“IDE benefits the host destination, while at the same time it lets agents become well-versed in that destination,” he said. “They come back as experts in that region.”
ASTA is considering either Bulgaria or Dubai for IDE 2013, he added.
“When it comes to trade shows and events, ASTA will differentiate itself, providing new educational venues that aren’t available from consortia and other entities,” said Gonchar. “We don’t want to compete — we want to create events that are original.”
A third area where ASTA needs improvement is in promoting the benefits of membership.
“One in four agents is a member of ASTA,” he said. “To me, that is an awareness issue. We must make agents aware of what ASTA can bring to the table. Some people say ASTA membership is too expensive, but the real issue is that we must better demonstrate the value they get for that money.”
“Larger agencies have different needs from smaller ones, and we need to deliver benefit statements to all of them,” he said.
Gonchar also expressed a need to bring new talent into the industry.
“Baby boomers are ready to spend their money,” he said. “To them, life experiences — especially travel — have become the priority. The challenge, as an industry, is to work together to bring in new professional travel advisors who can tap into that growing market.”
As he looks at the future of ASTA, Gonchar is focusing on helping the organization do what it does well, while changing with the industry to stay strong for the long run.
“ASTA is moving forward at this point, but turning around an organization doesn’t happen overnight,” he said. “It’s a good challenge for me — and I’ve always loved a good challenge.”